UB mechanical engineering student helps keep solar project moving with quality control

Student, standing in front of a solar array, takes notes.

Kyle Chiapperino, a UB mechanical engineering student, surveys a rack at Montante Solar's array at Tonawanda’s Riverview Solar Park.  

“What I’m noticing is much less, if anything, has slipped through the cracks this year. We really saw a vast improvement to the overall program with Kyle’s help.”
Jess Fuchs, Project Manager, Montante Solar

By Tracy Puckett

Published October 7, 2020

On June 1, 855 River Walk Parkway in Tonawanda was littered with rusted metal, the leftovers of an abandoned tank farm. They were the final remnants standing in the way of the site’s next life: a solar array.

This scene greeted Kyle Chiapperino on the first day of his summer job. By the time the University at Buffalo student ended the 40-hour-per-week stint at Montante Solar 10 weeks later, the landscape was cleared and populated with tens of thousands of panels – close to the 15,400 that would be erected in total – on approximately 25 acres.  

He not only had a front seat to the development, but played an important part in stimulating its rapid progress. The chance to contribute was made possible by the UB Center for Industrial Effectiveness (UB TCIE).

“I never really had the opportunity to be exposed to a project at this scale and see it develop as far along as I have here,” Chiapperino says.

UB TCIE regularly coordinates short-term technical projects by pairing undergraduate and graduate engineering students with organizations of all types. This past summer, the center managed to place 22 students at 12 companies despite COVID-19.  

At Montante Solar, Project Manager Jess Fuchs says the assistance was unburdening for her and a colleague, as it “allowed us to focus on other aspects of our job.” She compared it to a similar project last year that lacked extra aid and resulted in 60-hour work weeks.

“What I’m noticing is much less, if anything, has slipped through the cracks this year,” Fuchs says. “We really saw a vast improvement to the overall program with Kyle’s help.”

The project will culminate in a single-access tracker system in which panels tilt with the sun’s movement. The technology is relatively new to Western New York.

Total completion, known officially as “permission to operate,” is anticipated in mid-December once all physical construction, electrical work, and testing and commissioning processes are completed.

Summer help was integral to maintaining the right pace. In particular, someone needed to manage the quality control program.

“Kyle has been absolutely invaluable with that. He came up with a whole QA/QC program,” Fuchs says, expressing admiration for how the student quickly evaluated information crucial to reliable rack assembly.

Chiapperino, who expects to earn a bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering at the end of this semester, says he drew inspiration from UB coursework in approaching problems. Prior internships primed him to decipher the requirements, installation specifics and engineering tolerances embedded in technical drawings. The ensuing checklist and corresponding documents he created will serve as a foundation for comparable Montante Solar projects in the future.

With checklist in hand, he was accountable for visually inspecting the racking structures and verifying their veracity with a torque wrench before glass panel placement was permitted. The role also involved supervising two interns – fresh high school graduates – and guaranteeing that they were conducting installation checks properly.  

Chiapperino acknowledges the gravity of his role. “In a huge project like this, you don’t want to be running into issues once you have solar panels up,” he comments.  

He is grateful for what the job taught him: how a solar system operates, nuances of project management, and the relationships between sub-contractors, project managers and a site superintendent.

“It helped me to see how projects are handled. All the dynamics that go into a project. Potential problem areas,” he rattles off. “Things to avoid. Things you absolutely shouldn’t do.”

Additionally, the role granted him a view into the current struggles that companies are enduring.

“He got to deal firsthand with the problems of global supply chain management, especially given the COVID environment,” Fuchs says. “We had some late deliveries. He managed inventory of the racking system. He helped us figure out quantities required and quantities that were shorted, which was really critical to timely completion.”

The experience, Chiapperino says, has made him recognize the importance of supply chains and reinforced his aspiration to earn a master’s degree in the discipline.

“With working closely with Jess and seeing her project management skills, it fortified my motivation to get into supply chain,” he says. “It’s just been perfect timing in helping me decide where I want to go career wise.”